LABELLE – Hendry County kicked off it’s 100th year with a centennial celebration in the courtyard of the Hendry County Courthouse on May 11. Hendry County was created from the eastern part of Lee County on May 11, 1923. The county was named in honor of Captain Francis Asbury Hendry.
The May 11 celebration included music by the LaBelle High School Jazz Band, a display of antique tractors, refreshments provided by local restaurants, presentation of flags by the Clewiston Public Safety Academy Color Guard and speeches about local history. The event concluded with a fireworks display courtesy of U.S. Sugar.
The stately oak trees near the courthouse were wrapped in white lights for the event and enlargements of photos of historic events were displayed.
Hendry County Administrator Jennifer Davis said they hope the kick-off party will be just the first event to honor the county’s 100th year. She said community organizations, schools and businesses are encouraged to plan more centennial events. Anyone who wishes to host a centennial event should contact the county commission office.
Bill Maddox said the settlement of LaBelle began in the 1880s when “people started gathering up on the river.” Most of the area’s early settlers were ranchers and trappers. The area was part of Monroe County, then Lee County. In 1923 the Florida Legislature created Hendry County, named for Captain Francis A. Hendry, known as the “Cattle King of South Florida.”
If Captain Hendry was the father of Hendry County, Edgar Everett Goodno was the “godfather,” Maddox said.
When Hendry County was established, the Caloosahatchee river was a “winding, snake river,” Maddox continued. “It has not been dredged.”
He said the first school in the LaBelle area was built in 1891 on the site of the current Upthegrove Elementary School.
In 1911, the City of LaBelle was chartered. When Hendry County was established, LaBelle was named the county seat.
He said Captain Hendry’s house, built in 1914, is still standing in LaBelle. The house, located at 512 Fraser Street, was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1998.
The timber business was also important to the LaBelle area, said Maddox. Sears and Goodno built a lot of houses, he explained. Sears sold house kits through their catalog. Pre-cut lumber as well as nuts, bolts would be shipped by rail for on-site construction.
Most of the buildings in downtown historic LaBelle were built from lumber that came from Sears or Goodno, he said.
When the timber business ran out, the land was used for row crops and citrus groves, Maddox continued.
Maddox said when he was growing up in LaBelle, most of the streets were not paved. Tubing on the Caloosahatchee River was a popular entertainment. “They’d blow up old inner tubes and throw us kids in the river and we’d spend the day drifting down the river,” he said.
“Everybody sat down for supper at 6 p.m.,” Maddox said. “If the phone rang at supper time, a boy’s face would turn white because that meant somebody saw what you did and was going to tell your daddy.”
Flora and Ella’s restaurant was a popular spot in LaBelle. “Everybody wanted to go to Flora and Ella’s and eat their pies,” he remembered. The post office was in that same building. The Forrey Grill is now in that building.
Maddox remembered being let out of school to do work like pitching watermelons into a truck or moving pipe in the orange groves. “We all worked hard, but we played hard,” he said. “I can’t think of a better place to be raised.
“Hendry County has come a long way since it was part of Monroe County,” said Maddox. “I see nothing but good in our future.”
Jeff Barwick told those gathered for the centennial celebration about the history of Clewiston.
“Clewiston got a late start,” explained Barwick. “In 1923, Lake Okeechobee went where it wanted to.”
He said a group of Japanese families bought land in eastern Hendry County sight-unseen. After failing to tame the wild land, most of those families left but one found work with the O’Brien family.
In 1919, Marian O’Brien, who was the mayor of Moore Haven – and was the first female mayor east of the Mississippi River – saw opportunity in Hendry County and moved to what was then called “Sandpit” to get a fresh start. They encouraged Tampa banker Alfonso Clewis to invest in their plan.
The O’Briens convinced the railroad to extend a spur to Clewiston, Barwick continued. It was built on muck so it could only go about 3 mph and derailments were very common, Barwick added.
In 1923, the railroad depot needed a name, he said. “The O’Briens named it Clewiston in honor of Mr. Clewis.” They had hopes to turn the new city into a thriving community.
“In those days, Clewiston had a beautiful sand beach waterfront,” he said. They grew crops right up to the lake.
“In the 1920s, buying a piece of land in Florida was a big deal,” he said. The O’Briens wanted to develop it, so the land needed to be drained. They dug a canal to pump the water into Lake Hicpochee.
In 1924, the O’Briens contracted with John Nolan, paying him $10,000 to design a whole community on the shores of Lake Okeechobee. “It was a beautiful plan,” said Barwick, The hurricanes of 1926 and 1928 made it clear the planned lake shore community would never be built.
Another investor had other plans for the area. Bror Dahlberg bought out the O’Briens, who owned or controlled about 200,000 acres.
Dahlberg wanted to grow sugar cane in order to use bagasse to make Celotex, a fiberboard building material, Bagasse is the cellulose fiber residue from sugar cane that has been processed in a sugar mill.
“Dahlberg didn’t slow down,” he said. “He needed Celotex boards.” Dahlberg didn’t care about the sugar, which brought in just pennies per pound. He was interested in the fiber to make the Celotex boards.
Barwick said Dahlberg built the original Clewiston Inn out of Celotex. Dahlberg wanted a “first class community,” said Barwick. Construction was booming in Clewiston. Buildings went up quickly – as little as two months. Some are still standing today.
In 1925 Dahlberg bought a sugar mill from the Pennsylvania Sugar Company and moved it to Clewiston. Then the Great Depression hit.
In 1931, Charles Stewart Moot bought out the bankrupt Southern Sugar Company and formed U.S. Sugar Corporation.
Hendry County Commission Chair Emma Byrd spoke on the history of Hendry County’s Harlem Community. Harlem was built in 1931, she said. At first, Harlem was a collection of shacks and outhouses.
“I am from Detroit, Mich., but came here every year as a child,” Byrd said.
“I would come down in the summer and work in the fields,” she said. It was quite a shock for her to learn the bathroom was outdoors.
Eventually, Harlem began to grow. “There was a grocery store, a movie theater and a laundry mat.” There were a lot of “self help” houses built, she said. Families would come together to build a house.
In those days however, “you couldn’t come to town at a certain time of day. You had to stay on your side of the tracks.
“We were able to establish a community, and build and grow,” Byrd said. While she is not a native, she grew to think of Harlem as her home,
“I raised my children in the Harlem area. I wouldn’t want to raise them anywhere else,” she said.
As part of the centennial celebration, Hendry County elementary school children were encouraged to participate in an essay contest. At the May 11 observance, Country Oaks Elementary fifth grader Sophie Ozon read her winning essay about why Hendry County is amazing.
“Hendry County is one of the largest agricultural producing counties in the state,” she said. “Hendry County grows tomatoes, melons, peppers and a variety of other crops plus sugar cane. You should go see our farmers’ market yourself.
When it comes to activities, there’s lots to do in Hendry County, she added.
“Let’s start with Big Cypress Reservation. Last year, I was in fourth grade and we had a field trip to the reservation and it was awesome. We learned that the Seminole Indians lived in chickees and that Seminole women harvested crops of corn, beans and squash while Seminole men did much of the hunting and fishing. We even read a book called ‘A Land Remembered’ in class, which mentioned LaBelle began around 1890. You should definitely read it!
“Next up is Roland Martin’s Marina which is a full service marina and vacation destination which offers boat rentals, fishing guides and much more.
“Skydive Spaceland Florida is one of the world’s biggest and most progressive skydiving training centers. But my parents would probably not let me skydive ... alone.”
“Hendry County was formed from Lee County, on May 11, 1923, a whole 100 years from now,” she said. “Hendry County was named after Captain Francis A. Hendry, the cattle king and guess what? In LaBelle, we have his house!
“Hendry also fought during the third Seminole War and in 1863, he organized his own cavalry company.”
Hendry County Commissioner Karson Turner and Emma Byrd unveiled a plaque honoring Captain Francis A. Hendry (1833-1917). It states: "Captain Francis Asbury Hendry was a cattle rancher and State Legislator in Florida and served as an officer in the Confederate States Army during the Confederate War. Captain Hendry platted what is now the City of LaBelle and was the largest landowner and cattle baron in the area. Following his death, the State of Florida honored him with the newly created Hendry County."
This historical sketch from the Florida State Archives, was written in 1936.